If you’ve been waiting until Election Day to cast your vote, let me congratulate you. Like the retailer who holds off on Christmas decorating until Thanksgiving is over, you understand that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Ever since Zachary Taylor beat Lewis Cass in the presidential race of 1848, that designated time has been the Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
Besides honoring nearly two centuries of tradition, Election Day voting also encourages the method that is arguably the most secure against fraud, the friendliest to outsider candidates, and certainly the best for a fully-informed electorate.
Now, this might be a good time to confess that I’m a big hypocrite who has already voted. This past Thursday, I stood in an early-voting line that wound its way out the county courthouse doors and onto the sidewalk. Once I finally got inside, we voters were instructed to turn off our phones and stay silent in line—presumably because the murmur of a hundred voices would have kept courthouse employees from focusing on their jobs.
This was all very sterile and sad, but I had no choice. As an election officer who works outside my precinct on Election Day, early voting is my only way to cast the correct ballot.
Here in West Virginia, there are five election officers (EOs) per precinct on Election Day: a Republican and a Democrat at the poll book, another Republican and Democrat at the ballot box, and a supply clerk responsible for paperwork. All five EOs are charged with keeping tabs on each other to safeguard the process of a fair election.
We arrive on site at 5:30 a.m., open the polls at 6:30, and spend the next 13 hours processing voters. We aren’t allowed to leave the premises at any time throughout the day, and we can only grab bites to eat during lulls in the voting action. It’s a long, crazy, grueling day—and I absolutely love it.
In fact, spending all of Election Day inside a voting precinct has given me a new perspective on the day and voting process. So as you face long, patience-trying lines at your friendly neighborhood precinct tomorrow, allow me to share four positive ways to view the experience.
1. It’s Refreshingly Human
For months, most of us have connected with this election mainly through screens. Whether it’s watching TV coverage, reading online articles, or fighting with “friends” on social media, we’ve had precious little election-related interaction with real, live humans.
So there’s something soothing about showing up at the precinct on Election Day and finding that—lo and behold—the place is populated not by “tea-baggers” and “lib-tards” but by, well, people. There are suburban moms with shy, wide-eyed kids in tow; crisply pressed professionals on their way to work (or slightly rumpled on their way home); mechanics and farmers with work-callused hands; little old ladies who always give the same lecture about the importance of voting; people who likely have PhDs, and others who probably dropped out of high school. You know what? They’re awfully hard to stereotype and demonize when you meet them face to face.
As a poll clerk, I have to check each voter’s information, which includes his or her party registration. So I get the privilege of looking into the eyes of people who are there for the express purpose of voting against my political goals, and not only helping them do just that, but treating these folks with kindness and respect in the process. It’s an excellent exercise.
That’s just my perspective as an outsider in the precinct. For voters themselves, seeing Election Day as a human experience should be even easier. Unlike early voting, precincts on Election Day are located close to home, and your fellow voters are quite literally your neighbors. It’s one of the few times Americans come together locally for a civic exercise, and there’s often a cheerful atmosphere of patriotism and community.
Chit-chat in the voting line covers such nonpartisan subjects as kids, pets, home renovation projects, health problems, and vacations, with a little dash of commiseration about the campaign. No matter how much you may differ from your fellow voters politically, remember that you share both a common humanity and a hometown—neither of which is a small thing.
2. It’s a Reminder that the Process Matters
For all our different ideas about policy, Americans should be united about process. To truly embrace America is to believe in free and fair elections, the rule of law, and a government where powers are limited and balanced among its various branches. Sadly, even this basic framework is a matter for dispute these days. But Election Day reminds us why process is so important: without it, we have no foundational social contract.
As an election officer, I spend the whole day paired up with someone of the opposite political party, working toward a common goal. Together, we sign every voter’s ballot and make sure he or she has everything necessary to participate in the election.
Honestly, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for all partisans to spend a day this way: consciously working side-by-side with their political opponents to advance the process by which we maintain our freedoms. If we wouldn’t stuff ballot boxes or intimidate voters to forward our policy goals, neither should we dream of trampling the rule of law or the checks and balances in government. The ends never justify such means. If nothing else, we should agree on this.
3. It’s a Small Sacrifice, and That’s a Good Thing
We live in a country where people line up at midnight to be the first to see a new film, or camp out in parking lots overnight to get their hands on the latest gadgets. Yet, in some quarters, adding an hour to one’s Tuesday to stand in line and vote is considered a disenfranchising hardship. It’s clear that for the things we value, Americans are willing to make sacrifices. So if we’re not willing to make even a small sacrifice to vote, what does that say about how much we value self-government?
Yes, you will probably have to stand in line a while to cast your ballot tomorrow. Before you complain, take a few minutes to consider George Washington’s sick and starving troops suffering through the winter at Valley Forge, or the long, sometimes violent struggles to guarantee voting privileges for blacks and women. These would-be voters suffered far worse for the chance to have a say in their government, because they understood how precious it was.
As you search for a parking place tomorrow or check your watch for the umpteenth time, remember that the things that come cheapest are often those we value least. As Jonah Goldberg wrote last week, “Nothing truly important, never mind sacred and solemn, should be treated as a trivial convenience.” It’s a healthy thing to pay a tiny price for the freedom to govern ourselves.
4. It’s Catharsis
Let’s face it: this election has been taking up space in our heads for 18 months now, and it’s been a doozy. We’ve been talked at ad nauseam by candidates, commentators, pollsters, robocallers, and each other. But now it’s our turn. We’re about to turn all this talk into concrete action: going to the polls, checking some boxes, turning in our ballots—and finally finishing this thing. Whatever the outcome, the dreadful election of 2016 is about to come to an end.
Then we’ll all head to our homes or election parties to stay up late with bated breath, waiting to see just what that outcome might be. Except for me. After my crazy-long day, I’ll be falling asleep on the couch long before the occupant of the White House or the congressional balance of power is determined. Now that I come to think of it, that just might be the part about working the polls that I like best of all.